History is usually thought of as an account of what happened in the past. In reality it is more often an account of what people have wanted the past to represent to their own times. Traditionally the Wars of the Roses in the later fifteenth century signify a period of total anarchy in England. This violence was supposedly a result of dynastic conflict, between branches of the family of Edward III. Traditionally it was only when the Tudors took power in 1485 that this period of chaos came to an end. Naturally the new Tudor regime, established by Henry VII in 1485, found it useful to portray England before their coming as chaotic. Henry's predecessor, Richard III, did the same thing when he referred to his own predecessor Edward IV. And Edward IV, in his turn, did the same thing referring to his predecessor Henry VI (see The Wars of the Roses by A.J. Pollard P8). Because the Tudor monarchy turned out to be long lasting, the propaganda used by its founding king became firmly established. But the traditional story of fifteenth century anarchy is in many ways an old political trick. Politicians taking office naturally try to rubbish their predecessors. In 2008 Conservative Party leader David Cameron, hoping to create a government to follow Gorden Brown's administration, tried to portray Britain as a "broken society". Britain was of course no more broken than usual. It is also possible that England in the late fifteenth century was no more broken than was usual for the time, inspite of Tudor propaganda.
The Wars of the Roses as an idea was invented first by Henry VII. The competing factions of late fifteenth century England had numerous badges. There were white boars (Richard III), Sun with streamers (Edward IV), falcons (Richard of York). Henry VII's mother, Margaret Beaufort, used a red rose badge, and Elizabeth of York appears to have used a white rose. Henry VII, or his advisors, cleverly picked on these rose badges to simplify the past. Soon after his reign began, Henry ordered a series of pageants to be staged in which red and white roses would be covered with a crown. In this way the bewildering factional struggles of recent years were resolved into red and white, and found unity in a Tudor crown which covered them. The comforting result of this little parable was the Tudor rose and crown, an enduring symbol still found in the names of pubs today. This symbolism can also be seen in Westminster Abbey on the bronze gates of Henry VII's funeral chapel. Designed in 1503 these panels show red and white roses intertwined.
The finishing touch to the roses legend came in the nineteenth century when Sir Walter Scott invented the term "Wars of the Roses".
The way people have looked at the Wars of the Roses has resulted in ideas that have been very long lasting. But what of the events themselves? Records are poor, and in the words of J.R. Lander "narratives are a patchwork of legend and rumour mingled with, and all too often taken for, fact" (Preface to The Wars of the Roses J.R Lander). It is less the actual events than the idea of what happened that became influential. As Lander says: "What people thought, their affections and their prejudices have often been as important in history as the truth itself" (Preface). Historians have to compete for attention like any other writer. Initially in telling their stories, they emphasised, or invented, drama to grab their readers attention. Various Tudor propaganda exercises gave plenty of scope for this, and writers like Sir Walter Scott, embroidered a ready made story for dramatic effect. Then when the dramatic story becomes accepted as fact, other historians come along and make a splash by saying the accepted account was all nonsense. J.R Lander claimed that the Wars of the Roses were over dramatised. In thirty years, from the Battle of St Albans in 1455 - "a short scuffle in a street" - to the Battle of Stoke in 1487, there were only twelve to thirteen weeks of actual fighting, claimed Lander. The historian S.B. Chrimes was to go one step further and declare that the Wars of the Roses never happened at all! (See Wars of the Roses by A.J. Pollard P14). Such claims are often presented as dispassionate exercises in historical research, which in part they obviously are. But in other respects, the most seemingly dispassionate demolition of an old historical myth relies on the drama of the demolition and the fuss it causes.
In between, half forgotten, back in the mists of the past, is what actually happened. Naturally I cannot claim to know what happened, but here in bare outline, using A.J Pollard's book as the main resource, is a sequence of events in the late fifteenth century, which later became known as the Wars of the Roses. There is a family tree at the bottom of the page which might help clarify things as you read.
31st of August 1422: Henry V, descendent of Edward III's son John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, dies. His infant son takes the throne as Henry VI. England is ruled relatively peacefully by a council of nobles, until 1437 when Henry VI is old enough to play an active role as king.
1449 - 1450: a hopeless English campaign in France ends in defeat. Henry VI is not interested in military matters. All possessions in France are lost except for Calais. This failure causes resentment to build against Henry VI.
1452: Richard of York, descendent of Edward III's son Lionel, Duke of Clarence, is England's most powerful noble. He tries to take power. But after a stand off at Dartford, Richard submits and goes into internal exile in Wales.
August 1453: Henry VI suffers a mental breakdown, which lasts for fifteen months. By March 1454 Richard of York has been made protector, to rule while Henry is incapacitated, and perhaps to become king if Henry dies. Soon after Richard's rise to the position of protector, Henry VI's queen, Margaret, gives birth to a son, Edward. Now that Henry VI has a son, Richard's claim to the throne is weakened. Queen Margaret now supports Richard's enemy, the Duke of Somerset.
May 1455: rival armies representing Henry VI and Richard of York meet at St Albans. Some writers say there was a battle, others say it was a "scuffle" in a street.
1459: Queen Margaret is in control, wanting the Yorkists out of the way to boost the future prospects of her son. The York camp led by the Earl of Warwick takes up arms, but realising their forces are too weak, leading Yorkist nobles flee abroad.
October 1459: a parliament (Parliament of Devils) agrees that Richard of York and his supporters must forfeit their lands. Richard of York's supporters, the earls of Warwick and Salisbury, are besieged in Calais. In response Warwick and Salisbury mount their own invasion of England. Rebel forces meet the royal army near Northampton, and Henry VI is captured. Parliament proclaims that while Henry can continue as king, Richard of York will take the place of Henry's son Edward as heir. Queen Margaret, ever mindful of the future prospects of her son, will not accept this. In a confused battle near Wakefield in 1460, Richard of York is killed, leaving his son Edward of York as heir to his title.
2nd February 1461: the Yorkists fight back at Mortimer's Cross in Wales, and then march on London. Henry VI is captured and imprisoned. Queen Margaret manages to rescue Henry, but is too cautious in making her own advance on London. By 4th March 1461 Richard of York's son, Edward has been proclaimed king, as Edward IV.
29th March 1461: the decisive Battle of Towton in south Yorkshire. This seems to have been a huge encounter. The Yorkists win, strengthening Edward IV's position as king. The Lancastrians representing Henry VI carry on fighting in the north of England. The castles of Alnwick, Banburgh and Dunstanburgh are won and lost several times by both sides.
Early 1464: Edward IV's government finally wins control of northern England. In July Henry VI, roaming as an exile in northern England is captured and sent to the Tower. Edward, however, loses the support of the Earl of Warwick. This might have been partly due to Edward's decision to marry Elizabeth Wydville, a woman who was not considered a fit consort for a king.
George's Chapel at Windsor Castle
During this period Edward IV orders the rebuilding of St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle as a symbol of his power.
October 1470: Edward IV now pays the price for upsetting the powerful Earl of Warwick. Henry VI, with the support of the Earl of Warwick is returned to his throne. But Henry is a broken man, and Edward, with the help of the Duke of Burgandy is able to take the throne back in a campaign waged between March and May 1471. The crucial battle takes place in fog at Barnet on Easter Sunday. Henry VI's Lancastrian supporters try to reach safety in Wales, but Edward intercepts them at Tewkesbury.
4th May 1470: the Battle of Tewkesbury sees the death of Henry's son, Prince Edward. King Edward returns to London on 21st May, and on the same evening Henry VI is murdered in the Tower of London.
Edward then rules through the 1470s, until his death on 9th April 1483. His son Edward V rules for only three months, until he is deposed by his uncle, Richard of Gloucester who becomes Richard III. Meanwhile Henry VII, son of Margaret Beaufort and Edmund Tudor, is now the Lancastrian claimant to the throne
22nd August 1485: Richard III leaves Nottingham Castle with his army and is defeated at the Battle of Bosworth by Henry Tudor. Henry becomes king as Henry VII. The new king arranges for pageants showing red and white roses combined under a Tudor crown. The Wars of the Roses begin to be rewritten as a myth of a chaotic past, to which the Tudor kings bring order.
Below is a simplified family tree of Edward III showing the Yorkist and Lancastrian lines, resulting from two sons of Edward III - John of Gaunt (Lancaster) and Lionel Duke of Clarence (York). Even in a simplified form this tree is a good illustration of the real complexity of the political struggle. Rather than two factions with their red and white rose badges there were actually three family lines running from Lionel, and from the two wives of John of Gaunt, all of them competing for power. Added to this, the Wydville family of Edward IV's queen, Elizabeth also tried to advance their own dynastic interests in the confusion surrounding Edward V's death. You can see why Henry wanted to draw a line under the whole thing and simplify history into red and white roses which intertwine in his marriage to Elizabeth of York.